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Arizonans get front-row seats as guests at State of the Union

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story omitted reference to the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. The version below inserts a new 10th graf citing the act and clarifying that Jean Somers was referring to it when she said that advocates hope it will “set the stage for some bipartisan cooperation.” The story below has been revised to reflect the correct information. Clients who used this story are asked to use the correction that can be found here.

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WASHINGTON – Jean and Howard Somers’ work to increase awareness of veterans’ mental health issues has made them regulars in Washington, but the former Arizona residents were still surprised to get an invitation to the State of the Union.

“We didn’t even know how you got invited or that there were people other than the congressional reps there,” Jean Somers said. “We were shocked, surprised and very excited and honored.”

Somers was invited by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, while her husband was invited by Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, where the couple currently live. The Somerses will have seats in the House gallery for the speech – along with dignitaries, guests of the first lady and guests of other members of Congress, who can invite one person to accompany them to the president’s address.

Other members of Arizona’s congressional delegation sent invitations to everybody from friends to notable constituents.

Rep. Martha McSally, R-Tucson, invited Gilbert Valenzuela, 17, from the Boys and Girls Club in Tucson. The Alta Vista High School honors student was named “youth of the year” by his local Boys and Girls Club chapter, according to a statement from McSally’s office.

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Mesa, will be accompanied by Mike Broomhead, a radio talk show host from Phoenix. Freshman Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, is bringing a longtime friend and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, invited a former staffer from Arizona.

“I am honored to host the Somers with Mr. Peters this evening,” Sinema said in a statement from her office Tuesday. “Their work on behalf of veterans suffering from the mental wounds of war, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, makes a difference in the lives of millions of veterans and their families.”

The Somerses got involved in the issue after their son, Iraq veteran Daniel Somers, committed suicide in 2013 when he was turned away from treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix. Since then, the Somerses say they have become the “face of veteran suicide,” often flying from their home in San Diego to Washington to lobby for veteran’s issues.

The first bill Sinema introduced in this session of Congress is in honor of Daniel Somers. The Classified Veterans Access to Care Act would “ensure that veterans with classified experiences have appropriate access to mental health services from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” according to a statement from Sinema’s office.

In addition to Sinema’s bill, the Somerses were keeping an eye on another bill aimed at overhauling mental health and suicide prevention programs for veterans. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act passed the House Jan. 12 and is pending in the Senate.

“Everybody is hoping this will be the first bill that everyone agrees on – the House, the Senate, the Republicans, Democrats – plus he’ll (President Barack Obama) sign it,” Jean Somers said of the Clay Hunt bill. “So they’re trying to get this first bill out there to set the stage for some bipartisan cooperation.”

The Somerses said they hope that their attendance at the president’s speech Tuesday will remind Congress that there is still work to be done regarding mental health for veteran’s issues.

“The people on the Hill have to understand that we’re not going to go away,” Jean Somers said.